Painting by Elly Stephenson
If the ‘male gaze’ is a term used to describe the relationship between male viewer and a female object, surely the ‘female gaze’ can be used to describe the opposite?
John Berger in his book and television series ‘Ways of Seeing’ looks at the female nude as an object: “to be naked is to be oneself, to be nude, is to be seen naked by others and yet not be recognized as oneself, thus the nude has to be seen as an object”. He goes on to explain the origins of the perception of a female as an object in art.
In some of the most famous classical depictions of women, they are seen shying away under drapery, such as the Statue of Venus (the Mazarin Venus) 100-200AD. Usually seen as a device meant to exaggerate vulnerability it also has the effect of increasing her allure. In Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, Venus is seen covering her modesty, evidently self-conscious of the viewer, but at the same time knowingly so.
To explore this concept, I decided to paint a male friend of mine. To some his body might be seen as aesthetically pleasing. However, rather than empower him, I wanted to establish an awareness of nakedness and, in turn, objectify the subject. I decided to incorporate a length of white drapery, rich with symbolism, suppressing his identity and further bringing to the fore questions of objectification.
I was inspired to paint by the Rococo artist François Boucher, by both his technique and his subjects. Usually, he depicts voluptuous females, often lying on their fronts, displaying their plump curvature amongst silks and satins. In contrast, contemporary artist Celia Hempton paints male exposed backsides in graphic detail and in other paintings she focusses on male genitalia and masturbation. Her work moves beyond what one might consider bodily beauty and becomes erotic in an almost uncomfortable way; the concept of the 'female voyeur' is hence conveyed through a reversal of preconceived gender roles.
Berger, when referring to Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe, highlights the visual distinction between the humiliating nudity of the woman who is juxtaposed with the clothed male figures. In my work I wanted to focus on creating an image that emulated all the problems surrounding the female nude, projected on the opposite sex.